By JIM SALTER Associated Press
ST. LOUIS (AP) — The animal shot and killed by a hunter last month was a canine, wandered the woods and showed no signs of domestication. But was it a wolf?
Scientists with the Missouri Department of Conservation are using DNA testing to find out.
The 80-pound female, believed to be about 2 years old, was shot by a landowner on his property in southeast Missouri's Wayne County. The hunter realized after the shooting it might be a wolf, a federally protected animal that cannot be hunted. He turned it over to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The DNA testing will determine if the animal was a wolf, a coyote, a dog or something known as a wolf hybrid, the offspring of a wolf and a dog.
Coyotes, considered by many a nuisance that can threaten pets and livestock, may be hunted year-round in Missouri. If the animal was a coyote, it's an unusually big one since coyotes are typically around 30 pounds. Wolves usually weigh 60-120 pounds.
"Because of the great variety in the bodies of dogs, coyotes and wolves, it's important that we get DNA evidence to ensure correct identification of the animal," conservation department resource scientist Jeff Beringer said in a news release.
It wasn't clear if the hunter would face charges if the animal is determined to be a wolf. A message seeking comment from the conservation department was not immediately returned.
Wolves are kept in a few Missouri locations, including the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis County. But this animal showed no signs of escape from captivity, no microchip, tattoo or tags.
The Missouri Department of Conservation website says wolf numbers in the U.S. shrunk dramatically over a century ago as people sought to exterminate them out of fear of attacks on humans, livestock and game animals. In Missouri, the last documented native wolf was killed in Taney County in 1950.
Wolves in the wild are more common to the north. Beringer said some, usually young ones seeking new territories, occasionally make it all the way to Missouri from places like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Steve Parker, director of operations for the Endangered Wolf Center, said that if it is a wolf, it most likely escaped from captivity. He said wolf hybrids, often called "wolfdogs" and purchased as pets, are often dropped off in the woods once they grow beyond a puppy.
"When they get about age 2 their hormones kick in," Parker said. "They tend to get aggressive. People think they're better off in the wild, but they don't do well."
Beringer said the conservation department has a database of DNA signatures from all of Missouri's captive wolves and wolf hybrids. The department can also compare DNA with that of wolves from around the country. If it is a wolf, that will help determine where it came from.